Sep 302023

So this has been in the news lately, too: a discovery of remnants of a wooden structure that is almost half a million years old.

It is truly incredible. These tools, these worked pieces of now petrified wood, predate the emergence of homo sapiens by several hundred thousand years.

Not for the first time I am left wondering just how much of the past will remain forever hidden from us. The earliest human whose name is known to us lived roughly 5000 years ago. Let that sink in for a moment. Modern human behavior began roughly 100,000 years ago, give or take. Presumably, this behavior involved language, social structures and, well, names. These were our ancestors, millions and millions of them, who inhabited the Earth for countless generations. And we don’t even know their names.

And now this, some 476,000 year old logs along with simple stone tools that were used to shape them. That suggests some form of permanence. Which implies a structured society. Skills, transferred from one generation to the next. Language. Culture. About which we know nothing.

Half a million years. That is, 100 times what counts as recorded history. An eyeblink in geologic terms, to be sure, but for us humans? The word that pops into my mind is… humbling.

 Posted by at 3:09 pm
Sep 292023

I’ve been meaning to mention this: A few days ago, the sample capsule of the OSIRIS-REx mission returned safely to the Earth, carrying inside a sample taken from the asteroid Bennu.

This is a remarkable achievement, the first* successful sample return of its type. I wonder what we will learn from the material that was obtained, but I’m sure it will reveal some intriguing secrets, especially about the history and formation of the solar system.

Love the way the capsule was sitting on the ground, upright, not even tilted. Could it be more picture perfect than this?

I am also mildly (but pleasantly) surprised that I have not heard any panicmongering about a capsule bringing back extraterrestrial microbes or whatever. OK, I wasn’t specifically looking but still. It’s a relief.

* I don’t know what possessed me when I wrote “first”; granted, OSIRIS-REx brought back a lot more material, supposedly, but the first successful such missions were the two Hayabusa missions of the Japanese Space Agency.

 Posted by at 6:09 pm
Sep 292023

OK, not exactly a surprising result but still, a fantastic experimental achievement: Yes, Virginia, antimatter falls downward.

Why is this important? Well, we kind of knew that it was inevitable. I mean, if antimatter were to fall upward, it’d have meant that our entire understanding of gravitation is wrong. That even our understanding of special relativity is probably wrong.

So it was a rather safe bet that antimatter follows the same geodesics as normal matter and falls downward.

But physics, lest we forget it, is ultimately not about erudite speculation. It is about experiment and observation.

And this amazing experiment achieved the almost impossible: it observed antihydrogen atoms in a vertical vacuum chamber at cryogenic temperatures and, as expected, most of those hydrogen atoms ended up at the bottom.

 Posted by at 12:33 am
Sep 162023

My friend John Moffat has a finite quantum field theory that, I think, deserves more attention than it gets.

The theory is nonlocal (then again, so is quantum physics to begin with). However, it does not violate causality. So its nonlocality is a mathematical curiosity, not a physical impossibility.

The essence of the theory is present in the form of its “nonlocal field operator”. Given, e.g., a scalar field in the form \(\phi(x),\) the field is transformed as

$$\tilde\phi(x)=\int d^4x’f(x-x’)\phi(x’).$$

Now if we just used the Dirac delta-function \(f(x-x’)=\delta^4(x-x’),\) we’d get back \(\phi(x).\) But what if we use some other function, the only restriction being that \(f(x)\) must be an entire function, which is to say, unambiguously defined without poles or singularities over the entire complex plane?

Well, then, assuming again that \(f(x)\) is an entire function, we can integrate iteratively in parts, until we arrive at an expression in the form,

$$\tilde\phi(x)={\cal F}(\partial_x)\phi(x),$$

where \({\cal F}(\partial_x)\) is a derivative operator, typically some power series in the form \(\lambda_i\partial_x^i\), acting on \(\phi(x).\)

Why is this good for us? Because this field redefinition can suppress high-energy divergences in the theory, essentially doing away with the need for renormalization, which, of course, is a Big Claim indeed but I think John’s theory works.

John’s first substantive papers on this topic were titled Finite quantum field theory based on superspin fields (J. W. Moffat, Phys. Rev. D 39, 12 (1989)) and Finite nonlocal gauge field theory (J. W. Moffat, Phys. Rev. D 41, 4 (1990)). Unfortunately these papers predate so only the paywalled versions are available. They are beautiful papers that deserve more recognition. More recently, John wrote another paper on the subject, collaborating with a student. One of these days, I’m hoping to spend some time myself working a bit on John’s theory because I believe it has merit: The theory appears to remain causal despite the nonlocal operator, and by doing away with the need for renormalization, it makes canonical quantization almost trivially possible. I keep wondering if there is, perhaps, a catch after all, but if that’s the case, I have yet to find it.

 Posted by at 1:37 pm
Sep 122023

Yes, that’s me. At least according to The Political Compass.

It does not surprise me much, mind you. While I am not a wild-eyed, “woke”, progressive “social justice warrior” (in fact, I am increasingly a deeply fed up with the “woke” lot), many of my views tend to align broadly with the traditional left. I also reject authoritarianism in all forms, and while I don’t endorse unconstrained freedom (e.g., in the economy), I largely view constraints as a necessary evil, not as a universal solution.

And, of course, I absolutely, strongly, vehemently reject any and all forms of personality cults.

So here, then, is my question: Given the direction our societies are heading, will there be room for left-wing libertarians like me in the future? Authoritarianism seems to be so much in vogue these days, be it the culture of intolerance in the name of tolerance as practiced by the woke left, or the more traditional authoritarianism of the nationalist right. The common theme that unites them is their rejection of liberal democracy’s core systems of institutions.

To offer an idea of what the four quadrants represent: Left-wing authoritarians (red, upper left) include Stalin and Mao. Joe Biden and Donald Trump both qualify as right-wing authoritarians (blue, upper right) according to the Compass, though I am sure not nearly as extreme as Pinochet or Mussolini, also in the same quadrant. Hegel or Ayn Rand along with von Mises are right-wing libertarians (purple, lower right). The green quadrant (lower left), where I found myself, apparently includes Gandhi, Mandela and Noam Chomsky. Urgh. I so disagree with Chomsky on many things. Oh well, these are big quadrants.

 Posted by at 11:11 pm
Sep 122023

In his “1984”, Eric Arthur Blair, better known under the pen name George Orwell, at one point has the protagonists reading a book about the history of oligarchical collectivism, the dominant ideology of the totalitarian “IngSoc” regime of Oceania. They read,

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low […] The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. […] For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High.

So here is the thing: Liberal democracy is an aberration. An outlier. A period in history with no real “High”. We have no emperors, Kaisers, Caesars or Sultans. Monarchs, maybe, but mere figureheads in constitutional monarchies, not tyrants. In places like Canada, the United States, Western Europe and many other parts of the world, only the Middle and the Low exist. To be sure, the Middle can still be pretty darn powerful: political dynasties, tycoons and captains of industry, even public figures like media personalities wield substantial power. But their might is constrained by the system of institutions that we call liberal democracy: rule of law, freedom of enterprise, freedom of conscience, civil liberties or the separation of powers among them.

But this is not good enough, just not good enough for many among the elites of the Middle. They want more. Always more. And they fight. Throughout much of history, their enemy was the High. But in a liberal democracy, it is now the system of institutions that they fight against. Yet the tactics are the same. They enlist the Low. Don’t trust the system, they tell the Low. Elections are fake. Judges are corrupt or biased. Government lies to you. The rule of law is “weaponized”, they assert. Whatever it takes… but the real objective is to abolish the very constraints that prevent the Middle from becoming the new High.

And they are succeeding. Just look at the range of countries that are now on lists characterizing their retreat from democracy. Look at all the populists who are systematically undermining key pillars of liberal democracy, such as freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, even the electoral process. Will they succeed? I’d argue that they already succeeded in a number of countries and they are well on their way to success in many other places.

Liberal democracy, after all, is not a normal state of affairs for humanity. It’s an exception. It is no accident that some of the greatest 20th century writers of science-fiction, such as Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, did not envision a democratic future. Asimov’s future in Foundation was a monolithic Galactic Empire that persisted for well over 10,000 years. Herbert’s Dune similarly envisioned a feudal society.

And if history is any guide, when the would-be tyrants succeed, they all too often will continue to maintain a semblance of democracy. After all, for centuries following the demise of the Roman Republic, emperors continued to issue decrees and coins bearing the acronym SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, falsely suggesting that Rome is still governed by a Senate that answers to the people, not by an all-powerful emperor. But this is just a cheap conjurer’s trick to assure the masses, the Low: All that is being done is done for them, and in their name.

Here’s My Brightest Diamond, singing about High Low Middle. Not sure if they were inspired by Orwell, but it’s strangely appropriate.

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Sep 122023

I gave a talk on the Solar Gravitational Lens in Montreal back in July, using the above title.

Video of the talk is now available online, courtesy of the Interstellar Research Group.

I just listened to it myself and I didn’t cringe too much hearing my own voice or watching myself, which is probably a good sign?

 Posted by at 12:31 am
Sep 052023

It is unfair! How dare social media companies and search engines profit from taking Canadian news content!

Fear no more: Bill C-18 is enacted and from now on, these evildoers will be mandated to pay for any news content they republish.

Oops, but there’s a fly in the proverbial ointment. It appears nobody asked the simplest of questions: What if they don’t?

Not “what if they don’t pay” but rather, “what if they don’t republish?”

This is capitalism after all. These companies are free to choose what purchases they make, what services they buy. Or, as the case might be, what services they opt not to buy.

“Unfair!” came the outcry. “A disaster for Canadian news providers!” Or even, “Irresponsible!” during some natural disaster or other emergency.

Wait. I thought what social media companies were doing was, ahem, bad for you? So you wanted them to either cease and desist or pay up?

Now you are telling me that all along, you were benefiting from social media and the traffic they directed to your content sites, and you don’t want to lose this?

Oh, but you also wanted some extra dough. Well, guess what. As the old proverb goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

To be clear, I don’t like Facebook/Meta. I am only marginally more fond of Google. But stupid is stupid, and Bill C-18 is the perfect legislative example of shooting oneself in the foot.

I find it mildly annoying that Facebook rejects posts that contain direct news media links but it doesn’t bother me much. And if Canadian news organizations want a better deal, perhaps they can ask the government to get rid of this stupid legislation first instead of doubling down, compounding stupidity with more stupidity.

 Posted by at 12:21 pm